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'A safe place': Group helps dads widowed by cancer

March 25, 2013 at 10:49 AM ET

When cancer took Bruce Ham’s wife of 16 years, he wondered how he was going to raise his girls by himself.

The cancer moved far more quickly that either Bruce or Lisa expected, leaving little time to plan and barely time to say goodbye.

“It just wasn't registering when I went through it that she was going to die that quickly,” Ham told NBC chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman. “I thought we had more time. And we just didn't.”

Like the 20,000 other men who find themselves unexpectedly raising families alone after losing a spouse to cancer, Ham was struggling.

But then he heard about a first-of-its-kind support group at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Run by psychiatrist Dr. Donald Rosenstein, the group helps men cope when they lose their wives to cancer.

“Cancer is certainly amongst the leading causes of early parental loss in this country and around the world,” Rosenstein told TODAY.

Ham was one of the first to sign on.

“When I heard about this group I thought, you know, that's interesting to be in a room with folks similar to me,” Ham told Snyderman.

And sitting there with other men all trying to deal with the same kind of loss, the emotions just poured out.

“The crying started the first night with the first person that opened his mouth,” Ham remembered. “I think it began to be a safe place for these macho guys that didn't share their feelings.”

It didn’t take long for the men to bond over their loss and become close.

“I would definitely call these guys my friends — every one of them,” said Russell Tatum, one of the other dads who has discovered the support group. “We’ve been through a lot together and we share a lot of pain together.”

Ham and the other men in his support group are trying to get the word out, to let other single dads know that there is a place to talk about their loss and their feelings. They’ve launched a website, Single Fathers Due to Cancer, which offers resources and support for dads in similar situations struggling to put their shattered lives back together.

The project has had a deep impact on Rosenstein, who has watched the group help these single dads help each other.

“It has been particularly meaningful to watch these men pull themselves together over time, to recognize that they can do this, that they're going to be alright, that the kids are going to be alright,” Rosenstein told Snyderman.

Ham’s kids, Bailey, Lucy and Annie, have seen how much the group has helped their dad.

“I think he likes meeting the other guys and talking about their struggles together,” Bailey said.

“It makes him feel like he's not the only one,” Annie added.

But most importantly, the experience has given Ham the sense that he can, indeed, raise his children right, even without Lisa at his side.

“It's critically important to me that my kids have the same kind of childhood that they would have had had my wife been alive,” Ham told TODAY. “I think Lisa looks down on this household. I think she laughs. I think she rolls her eyes. And I think she’d be really proud of me.”

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